Roberto Márquez Celebrates Puerto Rican Poets

Posted: December 3, 2008

Roberto Márquez learned at an early age about the power of the translator to influence a discussion between two people. That was more than half a century ago when, as a child growing up in New York City, his Spanish-speaking mother would take "Bobby," as he was known, along to appointments at social service agencies to facilitate her communications with bureaucrats.

Márquez is still using his street smart facility with language, now combined with a scholarly grasp of history and the nuances of multitudinous traditions, to bridge linguistic, and by extension, cultural divides. His latest edited volume is an anthology of Puerto Rican poetry spanning more than 600 years from before Columbus sailed over the horizon to the present day. It was born partly out of a desire to compile a body of work that the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies has himself long wanted to have for use in the classroom. The other impulse was to elucidate the richness and variety of verse emanating from the island of his forebears.

"American audiences know very little about Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans, and the complexity of their insular and off-island diaspora literary traditions," said Márquez during an interview in the living room of his Amherst home, adding that much of what comes through the media about Puerto Ricans and the arts is often "reductive, marginalizing, and dismissive." Somebody had to take on the task of compiling and translating this rich swath of Caribbean poetry. "Ultimately I came round to thinking I would myself give it a shot," said Márquez.

Born in 1942, Márquez had an early fascination with flight that led him to Aviation High School, a public school where he became a licensed airplane mechanic. He had a string of jobs at LaGuardia Airport and some factories, soon realizing that even though he enjoyed working with his hands it would take years of dues paying before he could apply this trade in a satisfying way. (In 1993, during a sabbatical, Márquez fulfilled a longstanding dream by learning to fly, getting his pilot's license at the Northampton airport. He still flies as much as possible, citing cost and time as the chief constraints on indulging this hobby.)

Serendipity led Márquez to a job at the main branch of the New York Public Library, where he quickly went from the mailroom to being a gofer in the director's office. What made the job "so sweet," said Márquez, is that he got to be around books in many different settings. "On Monday I might have been in the main reading room and Tuesday I could have been in genealogy, a word I had never heard in my life," Márquez recounted. "Every day was a new adventure in learning," he said. "The library was my first college."

He settled into a job operating a Photostat machine, tasked with creating images of the title pages of new acquisitions. He figured out how to discharge his duties while at the same time keeping his nose buried in a book. "They gave me books willy-nilly," said Márquez, and when something looked interesting he would set it aside. "I read voraciously and eclectically without any particular discipline," he said, giving special mention to an affinity he developed for the British poets Alexander Pope, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

At the same time, Márquez began to study at night through a program at Bronx Community College that positioned him to attend Brandeis University. From there, he launched an illustrious academic career that went through a doctorate in Romance languages from Harvard University to a founding-faculty appointment at Hampshire College and a distinguished chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In 1989, he arrived at Mount Holyoke College to a current position as William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

As a critic, essayist, and translator, Márquez puts a premium on "creating access" to bodies of literature. His ear as well as his instincts as a writer were in many important ways shaped by his coming up in a working-class Spanish Harlem family. "I am aware when something doesn't sound right," said Márquez, extending a short disquisition on inflection to such things as word choice, a feel for the rhythms embedded in certain phrases, and how cadences express shades of meaning.

While his talents were honed by the confluence of the streets and the halls of academia, Márquez's attitudes may have come out of what he only half jokingly refers to as his "first job" of translating for his mother under often stressful conditions. He remembers the "condescension" many adults displayed toward them. "They failed to deal with everybody as an individual because they put people into categories," he said. Márquez also talks about how his mother would vent in Spanish about the discomfort she felt during some of these interactions. It fell to the child to instinctively protect his mother and his family's interests by suppressing her emotions through the way he conveyed her words. "She could vent with impunity because I knew what to translate," he said. "You learned real quick how crucial your role was to both parties but for different reasons."

Years later his mother revealed another side of herself when he came home from college reciting poetry that was exciting him. Once he read a central soliloquy from "La vida es sueño," a famous work by seventeenth-century Spanish playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca. Márquez didn't get far before his mother picked up on the passage he was reciting and finished it from memory.

"I thought, 'damn, baby,' " Márquez recollects, "amazed at her exceptional capacity for retention, despite an only sixth grade education, of all she had learned as a child and young woman on the island.

Márquez's Puerto Rican Poetry: An Anthology from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), the first collection of its kind--broad historical sweep and scope--available in English, was recognized with a first place prize in the translation category by the New England Council of Latin American Studies (NECLAS). More recently, completion of A World Among These Islands: Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries on Literature, Race, and National Identity in Antillean America his latest project, has now cleared the decks for an equally critical work of memoir and remembrance. Meanwhile, he is enjoying his apprenticeship role as a new grandfather and every available occasion for spending time with and spoiling his one-year-old granddaughter, Elena.

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